Bees are flying insects closely related to ants and wasps, best known for their pollination role, and for their production of honey and beeswax, in the case of the European honey bee. They belong to the order Hymenoptera and the suborder Apocrita. There are almost 20,000 known bee species, that are divided into seven to nine recognised families, and can be found world wide, with the exception of Antarctica, as they thrive in any habitat on the planet that contains insect-pollinated flowering plants. The best known species aside from the European honey bee are the bumblebees and stingless bees which also live in colonies and are social insects. As they use the gathered pollen and nectar as a source of protein and energy, but also make honey, beeswax and propolis in the process, bees have become an important part in the human life, due to their pollination of crops and honey source, as humans have dealt with beekeeping and apiculture since the times of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece.
Description and distribution of bees
Based on the species, bees may have different appearances. Sizes can range from less than 2mm (the stingless bee, scientifically called Meliponula ferruginea) to almost 40mm (the leafcutter bee, scientifically called Megachile pluto).
Eggs are usually oblong, slightly curved and tapering at one end. Larvae are generally oval, blunt at both ends, and white, and they are formed out of 15 segments, containing spiracles in each segment in order to breathe. They have no legs, but they are able to move within the confines of the cell they are born into with the help of the tubercles they have on their sides. They have short horns on their head, jaws to chew their food, and an appendage on either side of the mouth that is tipped with a bristle. Under their mouth, there is a gland which secrets a viscous liquid which solidifies into silk, and is thus used to produce see-through cocoons.
Bees as adults have short bodies, domed and covered with hair, and like all insects, have six legs and three body parts: head, thorax and abdomen. The thorax in turn has three segments, each with a pair of legs and is connected to the abdomen through a small waist. Almost all bees’ species have antennae, which have from twelve to thirteen segments in females and males. These contain a large number of sense organs whose job is to taste, smell, detect touch, and even detect small air movements, which comes as close to detecting sounds as possible. They also have two pairs of wings, which they are able to flap approximately 230 times per second, which is what makes they characteristic buzzing noise.
Normally, bees are characterized by having a set of compound eyes, which are so large that they cover most of the surface of their head. The surface of the eyes appears to be a series of hexagons which enable the bee to see nearly 180 degrees, to perceive colors and ultra violet rays. Finally, the mouthparts are composed of both a set of mandibles and a long proboscis (an elongated, tubular appendage), thus being adapted for chewing as well as sucking.
The thorax of a bee is made out of 3 segments, each with its own pair of legs. A pair of membranous wings is attached to the last 2 segments; these synchronize in flight. The front legs of bees have small setae (bristles/combs), which they use to clean their antennae. In many species, the hind legs also have pollen baskets: flattened sections of incurving hairs which have ability to secure the collected pollen.
The abdomen of a bee has 9 segments, the last 3 being somewhat modified in bees that sting. In the case of such species of bees, only the females sting, seeing as the ovipositor (the stinger) is used both to lay eggs and to sting, and so males do not have it. Venom is stored in a sac that is attached to the stinger. Certain species of bees are also known to die once they have stung someone. This is due to the fact that the stingers are attached to the abdomen and, as they try to fly away, part of the abdomen is ripped away.
Most bees have an orange and black coloring. They are aposematic, a term which refers to a so-called “warning” coloration, which warns others of a bee’s ability to defend themselves with a powerful sting. As a result, some non-stinging insects such as bee-flies, hoverflies, robber flies, have a superficial bee-like appearance, which allows them to gain a small measure of protection. Some say that bees, themselves, may be mimics of other aposematic insects, such as wasps, which are much more dangerous.
When it comes to their distribution, bees are found on every continent except Antarctica, and in every habitat on the planet that contains insect-pollinated flowering plants. Although one of the most popular species, the honey bees are only a small percentage of the bees’ species. They can be found worldwide and can be seen in many different locations, including Europe and the United States. They are most visible in summer and late spring, when new queens leave their old colonies along with thousands of workers to build new nests. At this time, large groups of bees can be seen swarming together to find a new nesting place.
Although most bees are diurnal, there are some species that are crepuscular. These are part of 4 families: Andrenidae, Colletidae, Halictidae, and Apidae. Most of these are tropical or subtropical, with only some living in arid regions and at higher altitudes. They have greatly enlarged ocelli, and the fact that they are active at night not only helps them avoid many predators, but also allows bees to exploit flowers that produce nectar only at night as well.
Breeding information and life cycle
Whether it is the case of a social or solitary bee, the breeding and development is similar. It begins with the laying of an egg, followed by the development through several moults of a legless larva, a pupation stage during which the insect undergoes complete metamorphosis, followed by the emergence of a winged adult. The sex of a bee is determined by whether or not the egg is fertilised; after mating, a female stores the sperm, and determines which sex is required at the time each individual egg is laid, fertilised eggs producing female offspring and unfertilised eggs, males. When the larvae hatch, they are generally whitish grubs, roughly oval and bluntly-pointed at both ends. It eats the pollen provided by the adult bees and uses a gland under its mouth to secrete a viscous liquid which solidifies into the silk it will then use to produce its own cocoon. The pupa can be seen through the semi-transparent cocoon and over the course of a few days, the insect undergoes metamorphosis into the form of the adult bee.
Behaviour and dietary information
Finding food for honey bees starts with a communication known as the waggle dance, in which a worker indicates the location of a food source to other workers in the hive. There are two main types of honey bee dances: round dance and waggle dance. The round dance is used to indicate the food source is less than 50 meters from the nest, while the waggle dance is done in a figure eight pattern where the bee waggles its abdomen. This one is used for food located at a distance of more than 150 meters. Exact distance can be communicated by duration of the dance, as a longer dance indicates a great distance.
Bees are adapted for feeding on nectar and pollen, the latter being used as food for larvae. Solitary bees are important pollinators; they gather pollen to provision their nests with food for their brood. Often it is mixed with nectar to form a paste-like consistency. Honey is a natural product produced by bees and stored for their own use, but its sweetness has always appealed to humans. This is why honey bees are now used commercially to produce honey. They also produce some substances used as dietary supplements with possible health benefits, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly, though all of these can also cause allergic reactions. As pollinators, honey bees are also critical to the environment and the food supply of us humans. Although bees have a delicate body, and a short life, they do not seem to take account of this, as they are daily transporting huge nectar and pollen cargo from flower-filled fields or orchards to their hive.
Bees may be solitary or may live in various types of communities. The most advanced of these are species with eusocial colonies which are characterised by having cooperative brood care and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive adults, and also overlapping generations. The group is called eusocial if, in addition, the group consists of a mother (the queen) and her daughters (workers). The honey bees are highly eusocial, and are among the best known of all insects. Their colonies are established by swarms, consisting of a queen and several hundred workers. Stingless bees and bumblebees are also eusocial. Bumblebee colonies typically have from 50 to 200 bees at peak population, which occurs in mid to late summer. Nest architecture is simple, limited by the size of the pre-existing nest cavity, and colonies rarely last more than a year.
However, solitary species do exist, such as carpenter bees, leafcutter bees, or mason bees. This means that every female is fertile and inhabits a nest that she has constructed herself, usually in hollow reeds, twigs, holes in wood, or underground tunnels; the eggs are laid in a compartment (a cell) with some provisions (a mixture of pollen and nectar) to ensure the resulting larvae’s survival and growth, which is then sealed off, with a nest consisting of numerous such cells. They have no worker bees and no division of labor, however some do prefer to construct their nests close to each other, giving the appearance of being social. Large groups of such solitary bee nests are called aggregations, seeing as they do not fit the definition of colonies. Although they are important pollinators, solitary bees do not typically produce honey or beeswax. They are often restricted to a single genus of flowering plants, as they are attracted by the odor of the pollen from that type of flower only. Such specialist species of bees also include bees that gather floral oil instead of pollen; in one of the few cases where male bees are actually effective pollinators, male orchid bees gather aromatic compounds from orchids, for example. Although few, there are cases of plants which, because their specific pollinator is in danger of extinction, are also threatened. The relationship between such a plant and the bees is called symbiosis.
Species of bees
There are nearly 2,000 known species of bees, grouped in about 7 — 9 recognised families. Many have not yet been described or assigned to a particular family, though, so it is more than likely that the number is actually much higher. Some of the most common species are:
- they are black with yellow stripes;
- they are considered to be beneficial, because they pollinate various crops and plants;
- they are very social, living in large families of around 50,000 — 60,000 members;
- if disturbed, they will aggressively defend their nest;
- a bumblebee sting is one of the most painful stings, with swelling and irritation lasting for days;
- they can sting more than once, because they have smooth stingers that do not get caught in anything when they try to fly away.
- they are golden yellow with brown stripes;
- they live in small families of 50 — 400 members, usually 120 — 200;
- they are the only social insect whose colony can survive many years;
- they can only sting once, but the sting can be extremely painful if the stinger is not immediately removed.
- they are generally a blue-ish/black color;
- they are solitary;
- their name comes from their ability to drill through wood;
- they are able to sting more than once.
- they have hairy bodies of diverse colouring
- they usually build nests in soil.
- they are very similar in appearance to honeybees, golden yellow with brown stripes, only that they have different wing measurements;
- they are very dangerous because they tend to attack in large numbers, increasing the chances of provoking an allergic reaction;
- the venom they carry is actually no more dangerous than that of ordinary bees;
- they can only sting once.
- the name comes from the fact that they use leaves to build nests;
- they are solitary bees.
Bees as pests
Although pollination is very important and beneficial to us humans, and we have used the honey they produce since the times of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, we can also consider bees as pests. There are such species that are known to be very excitable and aggressive, such as killer bees, which have been said to be able to chase people for nearly half a kilometer. Bees are also dangerous as there are people that are allergic to their stings. In most cases, a bee sting is only painful and the site swollen and possibly irritated, depending on the species of bees that stung you. In the case of allergic people, however, more dangerous symptoms can manifest, such as:
- severe itching, hives, or swelling over a large part of the body unrelated to where the sting is;
- swelling of face, throat, or tongue;
- trouble with breathing;
- stomach cramps;
Any of these symptoms can be a sign of anaphylaxis, which is life-threatening. Approximately half of all people who die of anaphylaxis were completely unaware they even had an allergy, in the first place. This possibility therefore causes bees to be a big problem when they construct nests close to people’s homes, which can happen under roof beams, in attics, in chimneys, in patio areas, underneath decks, etc. The aforementioned killer bees, one of the most dangerous species, are actually also the ones that build their nests in the most unique of places, such as tires, crates, boxes, and even empty cars that haven’t been used in a long time. Carpenter bees, in particular, can also cause cosmetic damage to the wood where they build their nests. prevention is always important, in order to avoid such issues caused by unwanted bee hives.
There are different elimination processes for wasps and bees as well, so effective treatment relies upon proper identification. When using any method of bee control, it is imperative to know effective application strategies, as well as the limitations and dangers associated with each method. The only way to rid your home of bees is to remove the hive entirely. This precarious task requires the correct tools and strategy, so for more details on how to do this, check the list of steps and advice provided in our “How to get rid of bees” article.